St. Gabriel's missionaries bring 'smiling, cheerful faces' to West Virginia

Jun 27, 2018

The Rev. Geoffrey Piper of Marion's St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church is leading missionaries on a trip to ease poverty conditions in a patch of Appalachia.

Nine teenagers and six parish advisors from the church are visiting Mustard Seeds & Mountains, a Protestant mission in McDowell County, West Virginia. The group left Sunday, June 24. The trip will continue through the week.

The reverend expects the teenagers to be shocked by some of the conditions of the area during the trip.

“The first discovery [teens will make] is that fellow Americans, through no fault of their own, have far greater challenges in every area of life,” said Piper, who has worked with Mustard Seeds & Mountains for various projects in the last 20 years.

Within McDowell County, about a third of residents live below the poverty line. There are few employment opportunities and a dwindling pool of residents (in the last half-century, the county’s population has decreased 80 percent).

Members of the church will work on houses and complete other tasks to help the community. Most projects will take more than a week to complete, with future volunteers stepping in after the Marion group returns to Massachusetts.

Groups from St. Gabriel’s annually travel to assist other poverty-stricken regions. Since 2011, members have traveled to Puerto Rico, Pennsylvania, and Montana.

It has been seven years since members of St. Gabriel’s have traveled to West Virginia. In a letter sent out to parishioners earlier this year, Piper described the week-long Appalachia trip as “by far” the most important development in St. Gabriel’s youth ministry.

“It’s a question of what we have eyes to perceive,” he said. “There’s plenty of need, deprivation, and struggle everywhere.”

Mustard Seeds & Mountains teaches volunteer groups how to help residents compassionately, the reverend said, without “acting as an answer to their problems.”

“We come along with smiling, cheerful faces, they know we’re at peace, and we just say, ‘How can we be helpful?’” said Piper.